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This post is in response to a comment on my Headcovering post asking about how I came to leave Judaism.

mrsjdb,

I was like your husband, I had just enough Hebrew School to be thoroughly confused, but not enough to form a useful spirituality.

In conservative synagogs everything is in Hebrew but I never learned enough Hebrew to understand anything.  I could sound out some words, recognize a handful by sight, and knew a couple of short prayers from memory.  When I asked questions about God and the afterlife I was told things like “no one knows” or “it’s a mystery” or “you’ll understand better when you are older.”  This was horrible for me, because although I believed in and loved God, I was terrified of death and used to get (okay, still get them occasionally) horrible panic attacks when I would think too much about life and death.  Conservative Judaism had nothing to offer me.  I was told that some Jews believe that when you die you go to sleep and then everyone wakes up again in the time of the Messiah, but that other Jews believe that there is nothing after death, and others just don’t know.  (Keep in mind I was a kid… age 8-13 when I was getting these answers).

I was familiar with Modern Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism because of my various relatives, but my impression of Orthodox Judaism was having to follow hundreds of seemingly incomprehensible rules and using as many “work arounds” as possible to obey the letter of the law but not the spirit… and judgment of people who were less observant.  My father was absolutely against becoming reform, but I never got a straight answer why – it might have been pride/shame.

When I was around 12 or 13, I started looking elsewhere for answers.  I was very interested in the occult and spiritualism because it offered answers about the meaning of life and the afterlife, which I couldn’t find in Judaism.  I also had a hard time as a teenager with what I perceived as Sexism in Modern Orthodox and (at the time) Conservative Judaism.  It didn’t feel affirming to me.  I decided at 12 that I didn’t want to be Bat Mitzvahed, and dropped out of Hebrew School.  I was still culturally Jewish at the time, but became more involved with Feminist and Nature-based religions (New Age, Wicca, and Native American spirituality).  My family of origin was also very dysfunctional and used a lot of guilt tripping and manipulation in a Jewish style and when I finally got into therapy at 18 and 19 I finished deconstructing the family dynamics and behavior patterns I had absorbed.  I stopped using guilt-tripping and responding to guilt trips in my interpersonal dynamics, which initially created a lot of family drama, but eventually people got used to the new me.  I stopped doing Jewish interpersonal things like trying to network everyone to everyone else and making decisions based on how my family and other people would react.

So by now I’m no longer Jewish in my spirituality or worldview or culture, but I still felt some confusion and loss about where I was heading.  I decided to go on a trip to Israel and Jerusalem to test my leadings and see if I felt some stirring that would lead me back to Judaism (I was open to exploring Reconstructionist Judaism at the time).  I went on the trip and … nothing.  I felt absolutely nothing.  And I considered this a sign that I was no longer Jewish at all and moved on without looking back.

I feel like I am being guided on a journey.  I don’t know why I started out Jewish, but I’m sure there was a reason.  I got some wonderful things out of my upbringing which are distinctly Jewish traits such as a questioning/inquiring mind, critical thinking skills, an appreciation for alternative viewpoints, a morality which emphasizes not harming others and helping wherever possible, and a solid work ethic and studious inclination.  I am grateful for these qualities.  I also inherited some neurotic traits/perspectives on the world which are less helpful.  I believe I was led into and out of Wicca and New Age spirituality and into Buddhism for a reason.  Wicca helped me learn more balanced ideas about respecting people’s free will and seeking resources within.  Buddhism has an incredible gift in my life.  Buddhism taught me about accepting what is… and Buddhism brought me back to faith and back to my faith in God.  Buddhism also opened my mind to the idea of Saints and Great Beings of Great Compassion such as Jesus.  This was a completely foreign and incompatible concept to me when I was Jewish.  And now I am here.

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It is a joke that I am going to be counseling people in just over a month when my internship starts.  Readers – if you ever see a counselor, don’t assume he or she has his or her shit together.  I clearly do not.  I am so confused about spiritual matters.  I had a big existential panic attack this evening.  Its horrible when it hits and then embarrassing after it passes.

My husband thinks that I will feel better once I get back to work (teaching) next month and start my internship.  Being home without adult company and gainful employment is hard on most people.  I suspect he is correct.  That said, I really need to settle on a direction for the next few years and stop these intellectual dives down various rabbit holes… they aren’t productive… they aren’t helping.  My husband says that as humans there are some things we cannot know and we have to trust that we fit into a bigger picture — he says that it doesn’t make sense that our peace or salvation would have to rely on intellectually solving some riddle or figuring out the “right” path.  He argues that there must be many ways and that its just a matter of picking a way that speaks to you.  As an agnostic (who in many ways has deeper faith than I do) he leans pretty Hindu in his Universalist worldview.

So then we return again to the religious drawing board… and we start going down the list of religions we’ve considered… and weigh what we liked and didn’t like, what is available, what is accessible to Westerners, what emphasizes meditation, or prayer, or service, or study, and what our tendencies and strengths are.  And I still suspect we are looking at this all wrong because its still “me me me” and I know that isn’t helping.

But I’ll just put it out there:  I want a spirituality that is authentic and has depth, but is also positive and affirming – not gloomy or fear-based (and yet also not superficial or “too happy/not real”).  My ideal religion/spiritual path would include prayer/group prayer, singing/music, reading/reflecting, listening to sermons or Dharma talks, and an emphasis on spiritual practice / moral discipline in daily life.

For now I need to stop weighing and considering.  Its not that there isn’t a place for intellect and reasoning as part of a spiritual journey… but in my case it clearly needs to be tempered with greater humility and faith because I am getting nowhere.

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I picked this up at the library (in audio book format) while I was looking for books on CD to bring on my trip (another camping vacation coming up!).  I started listening to it today and am enthralled.  It is wonderful!  I am looking forward to hearing the rest and also borrowing John Bunyan’s autobiography: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  Since I am currently in the throes of my own existential/spiritual crisis I think reading about his crisis 350+ years ago will be very interesting.

I keep thinking about Gautama Buddha in the Kalama Sutra addressing the confused villagers who had heard too many wandering mystics/gurus and didn’t know who to listen to or follow.  I can relate.  People interpret this sutra in very different ways, but my take is that you have to start with what is clearly right – do those things, and observe the fruits in your life – from those fruits will come other convictions other “right ways.”  In such a way, one is guided continually both by one’s own judgment and the unfolding path.  Buddha doesn’t say “pick this one” or “use your intellect” or “use divination” etc etc – practice is what is needed.  We cannot know truth without allowing ourselves to change through living a changed life.

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Waiting on God

I stayed up late last night reading back entries of Anna’s blog where she writes/video blogs about her decision to convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church.  She said one thing that struck me: that in the past her spiritual inquiries had been intellectual “head trips” of trying to figure out what religion had it right (which wasn’t very profitable) and that she was moving to a place of not knowing and relearning about God.

I can relate to that because I’m currently in the former state.  I have spent a lot of the last 6 months intellectually consuming information about different faiths and trying to suss out my leanings while attending various churches and meetings.  I’m not getting anywhere.  I am treating this as a puzzle to solve and nothing seems to fit/no one seems to definitively have the right answers.

I realized last night as I was reflecting on Anna’s words and sitting in silent prayer, that I have been approaching this the wrong way.  If God is here and reaching out to me (as I feel S/He is) then S/He will guide me to the spiritual home where I belong.  It is clear to me that the primary spiritual attribute/virtue that I am supposed to be working on in my life right now is Faith.  Faith has always been a hard one for me – I tend to be pretty high-strung and controlling (not of people, but circumstances) in my everyday life.  I want to find a spiritual home where Faith is emphasized.

And it occurs to me that I cannot just convert to a religion that emphasizes Faith based on something I read or thought about and try to generate the faith intellectually.  First, that would be really hard, and second, that would probably land me in yet another cult or cult-like group, because it would be artificial.  So, if the right spiritual community is out there (which may or may not be the case, I’m open to this being a path I walk alone), I need to be prepared for that path.  And so it occurs to me that God may already be leading and guiding me, but that there is a process of finding a spiritual home that cannot be rushed.  God is already working in my life and I am already walking the path I am supposed to be on.  So it’s not like I need to hurry up and pick a spiritual path to walk because I’m losing time (yes, that’s how it feels some days).  I am already on the spiritual path.

And last night and today I am working on being open and receptive to God working in my life.  And I go out in Faith that S/He is guiding me and will help me find the place where I belong.

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I have just started reading no death, no fear by Thich Nhat Hanh.  I am only a few pages in and am already struck by the depth of his wisdom.  He writes that the world suffers greatly from our tendency to be dogmatic.  Freedom is freedom from our notions and concepts which can trap us and cause personal and interpersonal suffering.

“The Buddha said that if you get caught in one idea and consider it to be ‘the truth,’ then you miss the chance to know the truth. Even if the truth comes in person and knocks at your door, you will refuse to open your mind. So if you are committed to an idea about truth or to an idea about the conditions necessary for happiness, be careful. The first Mindfulness Training is about freedom from views:

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill or die for.”

If we are to be free, we must have an open mind.  We must be open to revelation.

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I became a Buddhist for a reason.  This was after many years of living without faith, without religion.

In my late teens I faced a prolonged period of personal and familial hardship.  My mom had attempted suicide.  My parents were engaged in acrimonious divorce proceedings and  both wanted me to take care of their emotional needs and join their side of the battle.  In a desperate act to preserve my sense of self and not be used up by the manipulation and emotional incest, I cut my parents off.  I was painted as a traitor by my sisters and extended family for this action.  It was a time of intense personal pain and isolation.  Prayer didn’t seem to help and I experienced a loss of faith in God, Gods, or even a benevolent (if unresponsive) Universe.

Several years later I returned to religion consciously and with a purpose.  I knew I didn’t have faith but I was determined to have it again because I had been happier when I believed in something.  I had been a better person too.  And my panic attacks were getting worse.

Since the age of 8 or so I have suffered from anxiety attacks that would come on when I would consider existential questions.  These make up an intense “death anxiety” but is more than just a fear of death, more a fear of ego-obliteration or equally terrifying, a fear of ego-permanence in a meaningless and unsatisfactory Universe.  The attacks would come on mostly at night before falling asleep, but could also be triggered by other circumstances.  Dark movie theaters used to bring it on for me when I was young, looking at the expanse of the starry sky (which was overwhelmingly large and made me feel overwhelmingly small), or classroom lessons on astronomy.  My father was aware of the extent of my anxiety but had nothing more reassuring to suggest than that “no one knows what happens when you die, but that I would feel differently when I was older.”  Psychotherapy or pastoral counseling would have been helpful but this was never suggested and so I endured years of paralyzing anxiety and tearful bedtimes and eventually found ways to cope… mostly distraction.

Throughout the years periods of more intense anxiety (attacks multiple times of day for months on end) would alternate with periods of lesser anxiety (a handful of attacks or less over the course of several months).  Periods of attacks were worst when I had less religion and spirituality in my life.  The idea of faith – of saying that it is okay to not know the answer and to trust in a benevolent and loving Universe that things will work out in a way that I cannot understand as a mere human – helped.  Acceptance was the antidote to anxiety.  I discovered this as a Buddhist.  My anxiety lifted.  Religion was an answer for me.  Faith was an answer.

This is not the answer for everyone.  Irvin Yalom, a famous (Atheist) Existential Psychologist, wrote a book entitled Staring at the Sun, which deals with overcoming fear of death from a non-religious perspective.  His work is noteworthy.  Krishnamurti suggests that mental enslavement comes from running from fears to religious institutions or attitudes that soothe.  I am cognizant of that.  I sometimes wonder if my need for religion implies weakness or a desire for ignorance.

… but I don’t think so.  I don’t think that my need for religion is weakness because I have lived both ways and I know I can live both ways.  I am strong enough to endure my fears.  I have done so for many years.  I don’t think that my need for religion implies a desire for ignorance because I understand that I have a choice and I make my choice mindfully.  I have considered the costs and the benefits.  It is not only my anxiety that leads me to religion.  I consider also the sort of person I am.  When I had God or the spiritual path in my life I was kinder.  I had a sense of purpose and meaning.  I avoided wrong deeds.  I felt connected to nature and to other humans.  I felt joyful and in connection with something greater than myself.  When I did not have God or the spiritual path in my life I felt isolated, closed off, purposeless, and anxious.  I had an easier time rationalizing wrong-doing.  I want to be the better person.  I want to be the person who is loving, kind, forgiving, generous, and lives a life of meaning.

So here I am again.  In the last 6 months I have read so much about cults, destructive religions, and manipulation that my faith is in jeopardy again.  I am disenchanted with Tibetan Buddhism.  I am distrusting my spiritual experiences.  I am back at the crossroads, the dark night of the soul.  And my existential panic attacks have returned.  And I know where this path leads and I do not need to go there again.

I am here at the crossroads and I know now that I am someone who needs religion.  I need faith and spirituality.  And maybe they are all tainted with cult tendencies.  And maybe they are all a little wrong just as they are all a little right.  And I think that maybe it doesn’t matter so much which one I pick, which path I follow next, so long as I have a path to follow.

Would Krishnamurti be disappointed?  Maybe.  And maybe that doesn’t matter.  He’s just another guy after all.

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